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Imagine: Light rail along I-275 from Wesley Chapel to Tampa to St. Pete

This light rail train is part of the LYNX system in Charlotte, N.C. An ongoing study has identified light rail as the highest-ranking option for improving transit in the Tampa Bay area. One option is a route alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel, to the University of South Florida to Tampa, before crossing the bay to St. Petersburg. The study is part of a process that will identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will best serve the region. [Times files | 2010]
Published Sep. 29, 2017

TAMPA — A light rail line could one day run alongside Interstate 275 from Wesley Chapel, to the University of South Florida to Tampa, before crossing the bay to St. Petersburg.

That project was identified as the highest-ranking regional transit option during Friday's update on an ongoing study that aims to bring transit to Tampa Bay. Planners also highlighted five other transit projects they deemed most likely succeed in the region.

It's all part of a 2½-year study, paid for with $1.5 million from the Florida Department of Transportation and overseen by the Hillsborough Area Regional Transit Authority.

What's not being discussed? How to pay for it. Money and funding sources — such as federal grants or a sales tax referendum, similar to those that failed here in 2010 and 2014 — won't be part of the discussion until the region has agreed on a viable project with broad support.

"Clearly, that's the elephant in the room," said HART CEO Katharine Eagan. "All of us are probably thinking about it or having other conversations, it's just not part of this process yet."

Instead, the focus remains on finding an option leaders can agree on. Friday's rankings aren't final, and will fluctuate as cost, public input and other things are considered. Planners are expected to recommend a preferred project in fall 2018.

For now, the second highest-rated project was a "rubber tire" option — such as bus or self-driving vehicles — with its own dedicated lane along that same I-275 route. Instead of sitting in traffic and facing the same slow downs as those in their cars, these vehicles would run in exclusive lanes meant for transit.

This option could be incorporated into the state's Tampa Bay Next plan to add express toll lanes to the region, meaning drivers who opted to pay a fluctuating toll could also use that lane.

PREVIOUS COVERAGE: Long-awaited Tampa Bay transit study identifies five corridors for future transportation systems

Light rail from downtown Tampa to USF scored the third-highest when engineers evaluated technical aspects and public opinion.

Politicians and transit advocates alike have placed a lot of weight on this study, hoping it can provide some sort of blueprint for one day solving the bay area's transportation woes.

"We're looking for projects that provide the greatest community benefits," said Marco Sandusky, HART's director of government and community relations.

This is the second significant update in the regional premium transit feasibility plan, a cumbersome term for a process that will identify whether rail, express bus or other types of transit will best serve the region.

TIMES ANALYSIS: Tampa Bay has one of the worst public transit systems in America. Here's why.

A team from HART along with Jacobs Engineering recommended six specific projects Friday — including the exact routes and the type of transit that will operate on them — after two years. DOT first announced the initiative, originally called the premium transit study, in late 2015.

Yet some in the audience, such as Hillsborough County Tea Party co-founder Sharon Calvert, felt the study was working toward a predetermined outcome instead of evaluating every option. Calvert, an advocate of bus and autonomous vehicles, was disappointed but said she wasn't surprised to see light rail — a polarizing subject in the community — at the top of the list.

"We didn't get ridership estimates, no cost estimates, no cost-per-mile," Calvert said. "The conversation here is rail again and a referendum."

Planners expect to spend another eight months vetting the plans in community meetings and gathering input before determining how to pay for any approved projects.

Local leaders have not yet decided whether they are going to apply for federal funds — that process takes longer than some politicians would like. But transit planners decided to follow the federal process just in case those dollars are needed in the future for maintenance or expansion, Eagan said.

Members from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas' transportation planning groups — known as Metropolitan Planning Organizations — were present Friday to weigh in on the projects.

Some, such as Hillsborough MPO executive director Beth Alden and County Commissioner Sandy Murman, wondered why projects connecting West Shore and Brandon didn't rank higher. Representatives from Pasco and Pinellas talked about the importance of getting their constituents on board. It remains to be seen whether the three counties will be able to come together to support one project, especially one that might not have stops in each jurisdiction.

"We're never going to get something that's going to make everybody happy," Pinellas MPO member Jim Kennedy said. "Once we get a firm start, it can grow from there."

Pinellas MPO member Doreen Caudell said it was "extremely important" to get all elected officials in the same room to identify and move forward with a single plan, even if every city and county isn't served by whatever project is first built.

"It does feel like some of the top priorities are Tampa-centric, but you have to get through Tampa to get to that beautiful beach in Clearwater," Caudell said. "Once we take that first step, the next step will happen and then the next. They're all needed, no matter what order."

Contact Caitlin Johnston at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8779. Follow @cljohnst.

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